What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Christian values” or “Biblical values”? Maybe faith, hope, love, joy, peace? Some of those fruit-of-the-spirit words Paul talks about? Of course, those things are in there, in the scriptures. Lots of good lessons about all that good fruit we might cultivate in our lives, just like we talked about over the last several weeks. But there’s also several stories that seem to highlight values, personal characteristics, that we don’t really know what to do with. Jesus commends to us in one parable a household manager who deceives the master of the house for his own benefit, and he’s labeled as shrewd, something, apparently, we’re meant to admire. In our Bible Study last spring we read several stories about women who were tricksters, finding sneaky ways to exercise some control in a society where they had little power. And these trickster women become, in fact, part of the family tree of Jesus himself. And today we’re looking at a parable that lifts up what is nicely called persistence, but is more commonly known as nagging.
Jesus tells a parable, and Luke tells us that it is meant to show us that we’re to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus tells us a story about a judge who neither fears God nor respects people. There’s a widow who keeps coming to him day after day saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” A widow would be among the most vulnerable in society – a woman, no husband, no standing in society. Typically women were not even allowed to be in court, part of the proceedings. But here she is, demanding justice. The judge refuses. But eventually, even though, as he himself knows, he doesn’t fear God or respect anyone, he decides to grant the woman justice so that she will JUST QUIT BOTHERING HIM. And Jesus says, won’t God grant justice to you who cry to him day and night? Won’t he help you? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly. And yet, when the Son of Man comes – will he find faith on earth?
This isn’t the only story like this. We read another text from Luke, not long ago, that is fairly similar. In this story, Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked … I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” And Jesus concludes saying, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Persistence. The word means “shamelessness” or “unembarrassed boldness.” Nagging. Asking again and again and again. There’s two categories of people that have this quality down to a T, I think: children, and parents. My mother often tells my brother about the saying: nags are not born, they’re made. When she’s reminding him, again, to do something that he has forgotten, again, to do, he might get frustrated, but she knows what brings about results. Children have their own special techniques when it comes to nagging. How many pets are part of households because of children nagging for a kitty or a puppy? How many second helpings of dessert are granted because of nagging?
Persistence. Of course, maybe it isn’t that unusual of a value to admire. Rather than calling it nagging, though, we might talk about endurance. Determination. Perseverance. Relentless pursuit of a goal. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The little engine that could. There’s a runner determined to build up to a marathon, or to beat their fastest time. A musician practicing the same measure over and over until they get it right. Scientists testing theory after theory until they get it right, searching for a cure for a disease that seems untouchable until a breakthrough comes. We value that kind of perseverance through obstacles, through adversity, right?
Still, why exactly would we need to show persistence in our prayers offered to God? Why would God answer our prayers because of persistence? After all, perseverance against challenging obstacles implies we have to get beyond something that has been put in our way. Are we trying to wear God down? Change God’s mind? Do we have to convince God, persuade God, to answer our prayers? I struggle with such a concept. And yet, why else would persistence be so valuable?
I think persistence in prayer is more about us and the changes persistent prayer works in us than it is about God. It impacts us, speaks to our needs more than what God might need from us. Persistent prayer reveals our truest heart to God, our heart’s desire to God. Imagine if a parent said yes to every single thing a child ever requested, if a parent granted every single request that passed the lips of a child. Yet, when we long for something, when we ask again and again, when we are relentless in our need for something, things are different. When a child has asked for the same thing again and again and again – not just in five minutes, but over five months – a parent knows the child is expressing sincere, heartfelt desire.
More than that, persistence in prayer is more about us than about God because it shows our commitment, our faithfulness. I think we have some pretty short attention spans sometimes. I think of our constant, instant news cycle. Something is headline breaking news today, and the next day we’ve forgotten it ever happened. I think of the story of Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical CEO who increased the price of an important drug in the treatment of AIDs and cancer from $13 a pill to over $700 a pill overnight. His name and his story were everywhere for a few days, and he announced that he would lower the price of the pill. But he hasn’t – not yet anyway. And I wonder if part of his strategy is to just wait until we forget about it. Wait until the spotlight is off of him. Wait until we’ve moved on to some other story. We speak often about “15 minutes of fame.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s how much time we spend bringing what we claim are important concerns before God. 15 minutes. Maybe less. One mention, and we’ve moved on. What does it mean if we can’t even be bothered to hold something before God in prayer consistently? Persistently? Our persistent prayers are acts of faithfulness, to God, and to one another as we lift each other up in prayer, as we seek for justice through prayer, as we hold up the marginalized, the suffering in prayer. Can we keep the needs of our friends and family and community and world on our hearts for more than just a few minutes? Or have we forgotten our prayers just after they’ve passed our lips? I know God has not forgotten. But do we? Our persistent prayers are prayers of faithful commitment.
And ultimately, I think persistence in prayers aligns our hearts with God’s heart. It is God who is ultimately persistent, persevering, in seeking after us. It is God who is relentless, who never ceases to seek after us, who never stops searching for the lost sheep, who never stops hoping for the prodigal child to return, who never ceases in calling our name. If persistence is unembarrassed boldness, then certainly God is ever the most persistent of all. And when we persist with our prayers that we offer to God, we find ourselves in fact on the same page. We find God already laboring to bring about peace and healing and justice in the world, seeking to change hearts, and open minds, and transform souls. I think sometimes when we pray with persistence, God isn’t suddenly hearing us. Instead, we are suddenly hearing God. I think of the long and relentless work of the Civil Rights movement, and all the prayers offered to God to change hearts and break down the walls of racism and hate in our nation. I don’t believe for a moment that God needed to be convinced to created change. Rather, we needed to realize what God had been saying all along, when we realized our voices crying out to God for justice were in fact in harmony with God’s cry for justice through the ages. With persistent prayer, our hearts sync up with the very heart of God.
And still sometimes, our persistent prayers just make a space for God to enter into our pain, our struggles. Writes Peter Woods, “The [suffering and struggling] of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable.”
To pray with persistence is to make ourselves so very vulnerable. To pray with persistence is to come before God with unembarrassed boldness. That’s not a phrase I’d very often use to describe myself. Unembarrassedly bold. Not quite me. But for God? To be faithful? To be vulnerable to God? To have God share in my suffering and my struggle? To find myself working alongside God for justice? To show God my heart? Maybe for all that, I can, with boldness, bring my prayers to God. Again. And again. And again.